Theater Review: Titus Andronicus, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Strictly by chance, I ended up seeing two Shakespeare plays on two consecutive days this week. The first was Henry VI, Part I, here in York, performed by Shakespeare’s Globe. This is the first of three plays, and I’ll be seeing the next two on the two coming Wednesdays.

Then on Thursday, I attended an event for bloggers at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre (the smaller of two RSC theatres) in Stratford-upon-Avon, seeing their current production of Titus Andronicus, and attending a question and answer session after the performance with director Michael Fentiman, and actors Rose Reynolds (Lavinia), Katy Stephens (Tamora) and Stephen Boxer (Titus). It has been an interesting week.

Rose Reynolds and Stephen Boxer at a question and answer session after the performance.

While Henry VI Part I was an insipid performance, with wooden actors and uninteresting staging, Titus Andronicus was a revelation. Both of these plays are among Shakespeare’s earliest, and Shakespeare may have collaborated with other authors when writing them. Henry VI was probably written in 1591, and Titus Andronicus between 1590 and 1593. Both are considered to be among Shakespeare’s weaker plays, as well, and Harold Bloom, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, is very critical of Titus Andronicus. Bloom says that “Everything and everyone on stage is very remote from us, the rigid Titus most of all,” and, “I don’t think I’d see the play again unless Mel Brooks directed it, with his company of zanies, or perhaps it could be made into a musical.”

My experience with Titus Andronicus was limited to the 1985 BBC version, which greatly tones down the blood and gore which is at the heart of the story, and is also devoid of any humor. I also have the 1999 film Titus, directed by Julie Taymore, with Anthony Hopkins as Titus. I watched a half-hour of it a few days before going to Stratford, but didn’t get around to watching the entire movie; it didn’t grab me.

Shakespeare’s Bloody Play

Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s bloodiest play. While it’s not the play with the most deaths, it’s certainly the most horrific. You can read a synopsis on the RSC website, and a more detailed synopsis on Wikipedia. The important elements of the play are when Tamora’s sons, Chiron and Demetrius, rape and mutilate Titus’ daughter Lavinia, cutting off her hands and tongue. If that’s not enough, two of Titus’ sons are captured by Tamora, and a messenger tells Titus that if he cuts off his hand, they will be returned. He cuts his hand off and sends it as an offering, and his sons’ heads – and his hand – are returned.

This is a revenge tragedy, of a kind that was quite popular in Shakespeare’s time, where characters mete out their anger on others in response to insults. Director Michael Fentiman, in a question and answer session I attended after the performance, pointed out that this play shows just how brutal apparently civilized people can be. He said that Titus was inured to violence by forty years of war, yet he was a Roman, from a society that considered itself to be the height of civilization.

Early in the play, Titus, refusing to be chosen as emperor, shows just how much he has suffered:

Rome, I have been thy soldier forty years,
And led my country’s strength successfully,
And buried one and twenty valiant sons,
Knighted in field, slain manfully in arms,
In right and service of their noble country.

So Titus is not chosen; Saturninus is. He wants to take Lavinia as his wife, but she is betrothed to Bassianus, who is later killed. Saturninus decides to take Tamora as his wife, and she gladly accepts this opportunity to wield power, and to get even with Titus.


Lavinia, who could be empress. Photo: RSC/Simon Annand

All the while, there is a constant give and take between the two sides – Tamora and her sons, and Titus and his sons and daughter. After Titus kills Tamora’s son, she devises a way of making him pay, but also sows the seeds of her own end.

Actor Stephen Boxer sees Titus as a man broken by his forty years of war. He said, “I think the key to Andronicus is the brutalization of war […] and what it does to a human being.”

Fentiman pointed out that the play opened the same week as a British soldier was hacked to death near his barracks in Woolwich, near London. For Fentiman, this is the same type of violence as that in Titus Andronicus, and people seeing newspapers that week would not be surprised by the violence in the play. During the question and answer section, I brought up Game of Thrones as being far more violent than Titus Andronicus. Fentiman said that he had never seen Game of Thrones before, but after the play opened, he had noticed many mentions of its season finale on Twitter. He watched that episode, and saw that it made Titus Andronicus look almost sedate.

Violence begets violence, and many of the characters in this play see violence as a normal reaction to their being wronged. In the BBC production I mentioned above, the violence is there, but it is muted by the tone of the times. Without the blood, it’s hard to appreciate the gravity of the events of the play. The RSC’s production makes up for that, in spades.

Bloody Revenge

The RSC’s publicity for Titus Andronicus was quite unexpected. A first trailer presents an unexpected level of gore, as it focuses on matters not seen in the play, when Titus butchers the two sons of Tamora and bakes them in two pies, which are served at a banquet at the end of the play.

A second trailer shows some of the main characters on stage, but avoids the blood.

Before attending the performance, I had read some reviews where people pointed out that there is a “splatter zone” in the first few rows of the theater. I was not sitting close enough to be worried about my clothes, and there wasn’t much splatter in the performance I saw, but the blood was certainly shocking. When Lavinia is first seen on stage after her mutilation, rising from the center of the stage, many people in the audience held their breath. This stark moment changes the play from one where violence is discussed, and where some characters are killed bloodlessly, to one where there’s no turning back.

The blood was too much for some members of the audience. As I watched the play, I noticed a group of young women (perhaps university age) sitting along the side of the stage. Several of them hid their eyes when blood started pouring from Lavinia’s mouth, and kept on covering their eyes at different violent moments in the play.

Lavinia (Rose Reynolds) after being raped and mutilated. Photo: RSC/Simon Annand

Lavinia, played by Rose Reynolds, is a very powerful character. This woman suffers the ultimate degradation, yet remains strong, and manages to name her attackers. (Unlike in some productions where she writes with a stick held between her stumps, this version has an interesting method of doing so, using a salt-shaker and a table.) Lavinia, at the beginning of the play, has long locks of blond hair, and is dressed in virginal white. Reynolds is charmingly cute, and carries out the transformation from daddy’s little girl, and potential future empress, to victim with great aplomb. During the second half of the play, she only communicates with her eyes and her body, something that must be quite difficult for an actor.

During the question and answer section, Rose Reynolds told of a physical exercise she did to get herself into the state of shock in Lavinia’s mind as she comes up through the stage. It was interesting to hear how much work was involved before the play itself, as the characters learned about people with post-traumatic stress and trauma, and how to portray them on stage.

Titus (Stephen Boxer) with Lavinia. Photo: RSC/Simon Annand

An Unexpected Meal

But the violence doesn’t stop there. When Titus kills Tamora’s two sons, Lavinia holds a large silver bowl below them (they are hung above the stage by their feet) collecting the drippings. Titus then goes to prepare some meat pies for a banquet, where emperor Saturninus and Tamora are guests.

At this banquet, Titus kills Lavinia because of the shame of her having been raped, then explains that Chiron and Demetrius committed that deed. Saturninus, the emperor who took Tamora as his wife, says, “Go, fetch them hither to us presently.”

Titus then says:

Why, there they are, both baked in this pie,
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.

The final banquet then turns into a bloodbath, with a dozen bloody corpses strewn across the stage like broken dolls. The final scene takes the violence to an unexpected level, but also crosses the line between willing suspension of disbelief to that of over-the-top Tarrantino-like murders. In a way, it’s hard to see this scene as realistic; the muted violence that Lavinia suffers is much more poignant than the massive killings at the end.

More than Just Violence

It’s easy to focus on the violence in the play. It’s easy to compare it to films or TV series, such as Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, or even Breaking Bad. But there’s much more in this play than violence. This is a classic tragedy, where the catharsis is the deaths of all the principal characters. There’s much black humor as well, offering a bit of comic relief during an otherwise tense production. But this is Shakespeare, and while the language isn’t as good as in his later plays, there are some brilliant moments.

This play contains several strong characters as well. Not only do Titus and Lavinia show their pain and suffering, but Tamora is gloriously manipulative, foreshadowing Lady Macbeth. Katy Stephens’ portrayal of this character is exceptional, especially as Tamora changes from a ragged prisoner to an empress, in some ways mirroring Lavinia’s change from the daughter of a great general to a broken young woman.

Katy Stephens as Tamora. Photo: RSC/Simon Annand

Stephen Boxer’s Titus is that of a man jaded by war, who only knows one way to resolve conflict. But the pain in his eyes as he first sees the broken Lavinia shows a father who simply loves his daughter. He inserts humor into the role at times, providing a good balance to the violence that occurs throughout the play. Tamora’s two sons, Chiron and Demetrius, are played as two testosterone-fueled young men by Jonny Weldon and Perry Millward. These two characters are a bit anachronistic, wearing hoodies and riding BMX bikes at times, contributing to an overall mash-up of decor and costumes. Finally, Aaron, played by Kevin Harvey, is a brilliantly evil character, one who shows great love and tenderness for his child, but is capable of convincing Tamora’s sons to rape Lavinia.

But what is the message of the play? For director Michael Fentiman, “I would say that we need to be aware of our own cozy sense of how civil we are as a culture. We need to be really, really careful as the free democratic West about our own self-perception that we have no blood on our hands, that we are civilized, and that we are not a violent race committing violent deeds every day.”

Aside from the actors, this play uses music in an excellent manner, as a counterpoint to the violence, and the lighting is very well done. The Swan Theatre has a thrust stage, and has two vomitoriums, which are extensions to the stage that lead out through the audience. Sitting in this theatre, on the ground floor, one is immersed in the play, as many actors come on and off stage on the vomitoriums. The play also uses two balconies above the stage at times, giving it another spatial dimension.

I do feel that the RSC went a bit too far in marketing this play, especially with the first trailer that you can see above. I was surprised that the Swan Theatre, where this was performed, which has about 450 seats, wasn’t sold out. I wonder if people were put off by the trailers, and decided to miss out on this unique production, which manages to take a play long considered minor into one of Shakespeare’s most poignant tragedies.

I went into this performance with preconceptions of Titus Andronicus being a minor play, but I came out convinced that this play belongs among Shakespeare’s finest works. Many in the audience felt this way too, as they gave the actors a standing ovation. This moving production will be hard to forget; it’s so good, I’d like to see it again.

(I recorded the question and answer session on my iPhone; the sound quality isn’t excellent, but you can listen to it. And read what other bloggers thought of the production.)